Hadi Ali is not the stereotypical face of political Islam. His beard is cropped close to his face. He wears sweater vests instead of clerical robes. His formal education is in physics, not theology. All in all, he looks more like a professor of literature at a small Midwestern college than the No. 2 official in the Kurdistan Islamic Union, the third-largest political force in northern Iraq.
In substance as well as style, Ali’s interpretation of political Islam is unconventional. “Al Jazeera was here a few days ago, and they asked me about Israel,” he told me during a visit in late December to his home in Erbil, the unofficial capital of Iraqi Kurdistan. “I told them that Arab regimes have exploited Israel to guarantee their own existence. They have used it to justify repressive ‘emergency rules’ and proliferated emotional emblems so that their citizens do not pay attention to their own lack of freedom.”
He chuckled, “I think they were surprised to hear me say this.”
To no small degree, the success of Iraq’s experiment in democracy may depend on the emergence of Islamists like Hadi Ali — and their willingness to say surprising things.
Broadly speaking, the Iraqi Kurds do not enjoy a reputation in the Middle East for particular piety. (“Only in comparison to the infidel can the Kurd be considered a Muslim,” goes one Arabic saying.) Perhaps not surprisingly, their fierce commitment to an ethnic identity distinct from the Arabs to the south, Turks to the north and Iranians to the east — as well as the implacable hostility of these groups to the Kurds — has tended to blunt feelings of pan-Islamic solidarity.
Ali claims that his party is opposed to a state-driven Islamization of society — as attempted by the Taliban in Afghanistan and advocated by extremist elements in Iraq. Instead, the KIU advocates honest, effective administration informed by “Muslim values.” Thus, rather than expanding the power of the state to press their agenda, Ali and his colleagues insist their agenda is to place limits on the power of the state.
“There is Islam as a religion, and Islam as an ideology of the state,” explained Abdulsalam Medeni, a prominent Islamist intellectual in Erbil. “The state should not try to infiltrate the private life of the individual. This has been the experience of the totalitarianism that we suffered under Saddam.”
The moderation of Islamists in Iraqi Kurdistan reflects the margin of freedom that has existed there for the past decade, since its liberation from Saddam’s regime in the aftermath of the 1991 Gulf war. Admittedly, Iraqi Kurdistan is less a flourishing democracy than a liberal-minded oligarchy, dominated by two political parties — the Kurdistan Democratic Party and Patriotic Union of Kurdistan. Power is concentrated in each party’s politburo, snaking outward into society through rival patronage networks. Although there is a parliament, no elections have been held in more than a decade.
There have, however, been municipal elections, and greater democratization is expected in the months ahead. For their part, many moderate Islamists are eager for a more competitive political climate. “If people like our proposals, they’ll vote for us. If, after a few years, we are bad, they’ll get rid of us,” Medeni said.
It is surely no coincidence that the reigning exemplar of moderate political Islam is to be found in Turkey, the only state in the region to approximate a functional democracy. In fact, Iraqi Islamists would do well to consider the Turkish experience as they plot their political prospects in future elections.
Turkish Islamists’ first stab at governance in the mid-1990s was a colossal failure, as Prime Minister Necmettin Erbakan attempted to leverage a meager political mandate to wage a full-throated, if largely rhetorical, culture war against public schools, liquor stores and other symbols of the Turkish republic’s secularism. After a year in power, Erbakan was politely muscled aside by the military, and the country heaved a sigh of relief.
In the November 2002 elections, however, Turkish Islamists were overwhelmingly voted back into power under the banner of former Istanbul mayor Tayyip Recep Erdogan and his Justice and Development Party, known as the AKP. Whereas Erbakan had celebrated his victory seven years before by jetting off to Iran and Libya, the new AKP prime minister, Abdullah Gul, traveled to Brussels to plead for his country’s inclusion in the European Union. “We want to prove that a Muslim identity can be democratic, can be transparent and can be compatible with the modern world,” said Gul (who has since become Turkey’s foreign minister).
Erdogan, now prime minister, has received high marks for concentrating on the recovering Turkish economy and other issues of good governance, rather than getting bogged down in emotionally charged, but largely symbolic, arguments over secularism. Speaking last month at the American Enterprise Institute in Washington, D.C., Erdogan eschewed the language of Islamism entirely and instead characterized his philosophy as respectful of “the social and cultural traditions of our people.”
“Our aim is to reproduce our system of local and deep-rooted values in harmony with the universal standards of political conservatism,” he said.
Orhan Pamuk — perhaps Turkey’s most celebrated novelist and one of its most astute political observers — echoed this assessment of Erdogan and his followers when we met in his study, overlooking the Bosporus: “I do not see them as political Islam. I would describe them as conservatives.”
In Pamuk’s view, one of the most important developments in Turkish politics is an alliance — encompassing a wide range of players, from moderate Islamists to old leftists — devoted to restraining the traditionally broad powers of the state: “They say our state government is too influenced by the French Jacobin example, the idea that the state does everything. It educates the people, shapes their vision, goes into the cells of daily life in order to invent the Turkish nation…. But once a person goes into the cells of daily life, there is a destructive, dictatorial instinct that becomes entrenched.”
Indeed, the tyrannical state power that insinuates itself into every corner of a society — whether justified in the name of defending a secular nationalism or building an Islamic heaven on earth — represents the core problem in the Middle East today. And it is the conviction of Hadi Ali and other moderate Islamists in northern Iraq that they can provide part of the solution.
It has been suggested that attempts to foster the democratization of the Muslim world are dangerous because they will only serve to empower extremists. If anything, the Turkish and Kurdish experience suggests that the very opposite is true: Democratic institutions are themselves the best way — and perhaps the only way — to foster moderate political Islam.
As Pamuk pointedly noted: “If your fury and charisma cannot find expression in a democratic game, you don’t mellow down.”
Vance Serchuk is a researcher at the American Enterprise Institute. He traveled independently in Turkey and Iraqi Kurdistan in December 2003.